History of Art


Professor David Davies (1937–2022)

7 February 2022

David Davies

We regretfully announce the death of Professor David Davies on 21 January 2022. David joined the History of Art Department in UCL in 1967, one of its earliest staff members along with Leopold Ettlinger and Helen Weston. A specialist in Spanish painting, in particular in the works of Velázquez and El Greco, on whom he published and curated exhibitions, he taught here for more than three decades until his retirement in 2001. 

David is especially remembered as a devoted teacher and colleague, and we are pleased to share below some reminiscences from staff and former students. 

Professor Bob Mills
Head of Department, UCL History of Art

I have the fondest memories of David Davies, going back to before the founding of the Department by Leopold Ettlinger in the 1960s. I first heard of him when I came into the Common Room of the Walthamstow School of Art, where we were both teaching. The other tutors were huddled around a radio listening to a boxing match. David was defending his title as middleweight champion of Wales. Despite his prowess in the boxing ring, he was the gentlest and sweetest of people. At UCL he and the much-missed Helen Weston did most of the teaching, working tirelessly to put the fledgling History of Art Department on its feet; they taught an astonishing range of courses spanning the centuries, before others came to help. He spent his whole career in the Department, becoming the longest-standing member before his retirement.


David’s many students, some of whom went on to distinguished positions in the art world, can testify better than I can to his passion for Spanish art and his ability to fire them with enthusiasm. Though he wrote a brilliant short book on El Greco he was unable to finish his great work on the subject, a very great loss to the field of study. His great achievements were as a teacher and a friend to his students and colleagues. David had a charming eccentricity, displayed in his devotion to a staggeringly ugly dog which latterly he brought into work, and in his failure to ever master a keyboard, despite his unfailing enthusiasm for doing so (I could never persuade him to take his computer out of its box). He was a lovely man and all those who knew him will miss the warmth of his presence.

David Bindman, Durning Lawrence Professor (Emeritus) and Head of Department 1990–1999

David was one of the earliest members of the Department along with Helen Weston. A painting of muscular miners working underground – painted using coal dust – that was lent to him is still in the ground floor office in Gordon Square. David was a very gentle man from the Welsh valleys like my father and always very kind to me. He had a reputation, hard to believe from later life, as having trained as a boxer. I remember him as a very dedicated teacher of Spanish painting, especially Velázquez and El Greco on whom he published, and his students, to whom he gave a lot of time, thought and kindness, often became devoted to him. Any student who came to the Department thinking it was easy or unnecessary to describe a painting soon discovered otherwise from him.

I also remember him as very impractical (with regard to everything from typing, to slides and coffee machines in departmental meetings) and I suspect that was another reason he so loved teaching in the National Gallery in front of the paintings.


Alison Wright, Professor of Italian Art c.1300–1550 and Head of Department 2016–19

My first encounter with David Davies was as an undergraduate at Westfield where I took a number of his second years courses at UCL on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish painting and Caravaggio and Rome. He was a kind, encouraging and inspiring teacher, whose classes – almost always in the National Gallery – regularly stretched beyond their allotted times (what would he have made of today’s two-hourly timetable slots?). He taught us how to really look at paintings, facilitating a supportive and comfortable atmosphere for discussion and always seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say. Essays would be returned with long, detailed and helpful comments in his distinctive handwriting, written in blue fountain pen ink. 

Years later when I joined UCL’s History of Art Department as a member of staff, we enjoyed regular Welsh banter. I grew up about 10 miles down the South Wales coast from where David would still regularly visit family. We’d swap recommendations of good local pubs and scenic coastal walks, discuss international rugby results and on one hilarious occasion, at David’s request, have a phone conversation with his daughter Chloe who was auditioning for a Welsh character in a play, as David thought hearing my ‘type’ of south Wales accent might be useful preparation.

I learnt a lot from David and will always remember his kindness, enthusiasm and dedication to students, and his sense of humour and fun. He really was a gentle man.

- Diana Dethloff, Lecturer (Teaching) in Sixteenth & Seventeenth-Century British Art and Affiliate Tutor

David Davies always seemed to me one of the kindest and gentlest of people. There was something almost otherworldly about him, which became pronounced whenever he was confronted with the new technologies brought in by the Digital Revolution. As far as I know, the typewriter remained a challenge to him. It came as a considerable surprise when I discovered that in addition to his art-historical accomplishments he was a talented boxer. He once told me that his unfulfilled ambition was to fight in Madison Square Garden. Having attended a violent sporting event [ice hockey] in that famous venue in my younger days I simply could not imagine him as the focus of such primal passions. But maybe in the ring he channeled that fierce enthusiasm he brought to the study of seventeenth-century Spanish painting into another form of art.

The Digital Revolution has made it easy for most of us to communicate – not always in good ways – but has isolated us in others. I feel very sad that in the more than ten years since I retired from UCL I had no contact with him that I can recall. Not through lack of affection, but lack of occasion. He was a delightful colleague and an inspiring teacher, completely dedicated to art history as a humanistic discipline.

- Andrew Hemingway, Emeritus Professor of History of Art, retired 2010

In conversation you would inevitably become entangled in David Davies’ present research. When I was a student this was principally his pioneering work on neo-platonism in sixteenth-century Toledo, and Catholic Reformation iconography in the work of El Greco. Later, when he was a colleague, he worked more and more on the larger history of Spanish painting. He was an intense conversationalist and needed no prompting to give a detailed analysis of a description of a painting by Pacheco, or some unconsidered detail of Renaissance hagiography, or a Dominican reading of the Epistles of Paul. When we were students there was only a small bibliography on Spanish art in English, and we encountered Spanish painting, indeed sixteenth-century painting generally, through his preoccupations; fortunately those preoccupations were both astute and appropriate. He supported a number of research students who wrote important dissertations and went on to significant careers.

Classes with David Davies were liable to drift. We would have arrived at the National Gallery to look at Tintoretto's 'St George' but something may have caught his eye, or one of us may have asked him a question or, for no apparent reason, he might drag us off to the other side of the Gallery to talk about something quite different, or he might decide to recount a conversation he had the previous week with a catholic priest, but first he had to start things off by telling us about Franciscan devotion to the Virgin. Visiting a gallery with with David Davies provided some of my best educational experiences, a teacher enraptured by his subject matter and under a compulsion to communicate his enthusiam. 

Years ago essays were not handed in to be returned marked. There was no exact deadline. Students read their essays aloud to the tutor in one-to-one meetings. David Davies would lean forward, his hand cupping his ear (if I remember correctly, his deafness was caused by a boxing injury), interrupting from time to time, pouncing on a reference and sometimes writing it down, in felt tip, in a careful, rounded script. He never stinted in praise and support, nor did he withhold negative criticism. His face would shift from impish delight to sublime condemnation and then back again. You would leave the essay with him and it would eventually come back covered in comments. 


- Charles Ford, Senior Lecturer in History of Art (to 2017)

I studied Spanish and History of Art at UCL from 1997-2001, graduating the same summer as David retired. David was the main reason I applied to study that programme at UCL. After living and working for 2.5 years in Madrid, I planned to return to university as a mature student to obtain a qualification in Spanish, but I also knew that I didn't want to do single honours. On discovering that UCL possessed an expert in Golden Age Spanish art – I had been fortunate enough to live five minutes from the Prado Museum when in Spain – my mind was made up, and the first History of Art modules I signed up to in my second and final year were his on portraiture and Golden Age Spanish religious art. He also supervised my dissertation comparing representations of kingship on canvas and the stage during the reign of Philip IV. 
I consider myself very fortunate to have been taught by David. He was a truly inspirational teacher, incredibly kind and generous with his time in our classes at museums. My fondest memory of him (besides when he told us with a glint in his eye that he and other curators of the El Greco exhibition eventually held at the National Gallery were hoping that a particularly obdurate bishop in Spain would hurry up and succumb to his terminal illness so they could get permission to display one of the paintings in his diocese as part of that exhibition) was at the reception following his inaugural lecture as professor, when I told him I'd graduated with First Class honours and he gleefully grabbed my cheek to congratulate me. David was also indirectly crucial in my getting my foot in the door in the Spanish department at Leeds, as I was able to present myself as the only candidate for a Teaching Fellowship with any training in History of Art and therefore able to fit right in on a module about Spanish visual culture. Indeed, I still use notes I took with David in the current version of that module.
- Stuart Green, Director of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University of Leeds
I was very fortunate to be one of David’s students at UCL (1990-1993), and then work with him on his dream exhibition, El Greco, at the National Gallery in 2004. His greatest skill to my mind was his ability to speak in an inspiring and enthusiastic way in front of a painting. Projectors and slides were taboo. It had to be in front of the original. This meant visits to the National Gallery and intense moments in front of Titian, El Greco, Velázquez and Murillo. David was like a preacher, a man who appeared to have discovered his faith and wished to convert those before him. He would often start by explaining that a painting had to be considered first and foremost in its original context and that we should consider questions such as where it hung, how high, where the light source came from and who would have knelt before it. David would then proceed to explain the role of the saints as mediators between us and God, with the Virgin Mary as the prime Mediatrix, and that through faith and good works alone could one receive the Grace of God. Just as he was about to go into ecstasy, he would bring us back to reality and remind us that he was an atheist with left wing tendencies. It was this combination of looking hard at composition, colour and brushwork alongside a historical and theological context that left a mark on my approach to art history and would inspire me to write my Ph.D thesis on Goya as a religious painter later on. 

David was more than a teacher however and little did I know that our relationship would continue after UCL. His openness and generosity with his time allowed one to talk about life in both philosophical and practical terms. He was a good listener and because of his strong Welsh values based on hard work and respect for others, he was able to provide sound advice both on a personal and professional level. This was often given over a long walk in Sydenham woods with his dog, a format I most enjoyed, especially as he liked to remind me that this was what he and Anthony Blunt used to do. It was David together with Brian Sewell who escorted Blunt out of the back entrance of the Courtauld in his Land Rover when his role as a Russian spy was revealed in 1979. David never hesitated to tell you the truth and could at times be critical, but he always did it with a friendly nudge and a glint in his eyes, while retaining his precise and careful tone. That is why, to the surprise of my wife and friends, I asked him if he would make a speech at my wedding in 2004.

David, as we all know was fervently dedicated to the artist Domenikos Theotokopolous, better known as El Greco. He wrote extensively about El Greco as an intellect steeped in classical writings, influenced by Aristotle and Plato, as well as the Catholic reformist movement. El Greco’s elongated forms and unnatural colours have led many to come up with spurious explanations, from astigmatism to a transcendental visionary, but for David he was one of the most complex and sophisticated painters of the 16th century, a Renaissance man who bridged East and Western Christian civilizations. It was therefore going to be quite a challenge when my colleagues and I at the National Gallery, London, agreed to mount a major exhibition on El Greco with him. Finding a fine balance between the curatorial and the academic is certainly not easy, and David had clear ideas as to how he wanted El Greco explained to the general public. 

The result was one of the most beautiful and theatrical exhibitions ever installed in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing exhibition space. The final room was filled with El Greco’s late altarpieces- a firework display of forms and colours- a period of El Greco’s oeuvre that had been previously been overlooked by scholars. David also insisted that it was time to reveal El Greco’s remarkable skill as a portraitist and the works selected demonstrated that the artist considered to be by so many so mannered was more than able to paint a realistic and characterful likeness. Perhaps most startingly, David chose to open the exhibition with a very early icon in the post Byzantine style by El Greco which was still being venerated by the monks of the Monastery of the Dormition on the island of Syros. It required considerable diplomatic skills to bring to London! For me, the El Greco exhibition marked the zenith of David’s distinguished career as a teacher and scholar. The exhibition was an enormous success and no one was more delighted by this than David. I will always think of David at this point in his life with great fondness. 

- Xavier Bray, former student and Director of the Wallace Collection